Aardvark Computer Repair

Google Chrome 5

For Windows users, Google Chrome 5 is a minor update; the real news is that with Chrome 5 Google's browser is finally available for Mac OS X and Linux. After over a year in development, Mac and Linux users can finally experience Chrome speed and sparse design. Windows Chrome users aren't completely shut out; Chrome for Windows gets a speed boost, preference syncing, a redesigned bookmark manager, the ability to run extensions while in private mode, and more HTML 5 support. On a less open note, Google's announcement that Flash would be built into the browser hasn't materialized in this version. In all, the incremental changes make Chrome even more appealing—and now for a larger set of users.

The overriding philosophy of Google's Chrome browser can be summed up in one word: speed. I'm not just talking about its surfing speed (more on this later), but also the speed at which new versions come out. Just over a year after the first release, we're already at version 5. Google representatives downplay version numbers, probably since they're not comparable with those of competitors like Firefox—at only version 3.6 after six long years. Chrome also delivers speed from the get-go when you decide to add it to your system, thanks to one of the easiest installers ever. The browser's up and running before you realize it, and it updates itself automatically in the background.

Unsurprisingly in such speed-obsessed software, Chrome remains the sparsest browser—there's no RSS reader, and no separate dialogs or sidebars for things like history, downloads, or favorites (Opera and Firefox have them). But extensions can change some of this, for those who choose to install them. Chrome's goal is still to keep the browser out of the way, however, and to make Web apps the focus. To this end, you can create shortcuts to Web apps that dispense with the browser's buttons, tabs, and bookmark icons.

Tabs

Chrome also still sports excellent tab implementation. Tabs are prominent at the top of the browser window, and you can drag them out to the desktop to create independent windows (and drag them back in later) or split them side by side à la Windows 7. Google has put considerable thought into its browser's new tab page, which shows thumbnails of your most-visited pages. We like that you can move the thumbnails around and pin them in place. You also now have a choice of list or thumbnail view, and you can display only recently closed tabs, only most visited pages, or neither. The bottom of the new tab page shows a tip for using Chrome, but you can't turn that off—an atypical instance of non-customizability for Chrome.

Syncing Bookmarks

Bookmark syncing has been available in the beta version of Chrome since early last November, and it duplicates a feature that was introduced by the Opera browser in 2008. In version 5, you can now sync more than just bookmarks. You can now sync Preferences, too, including themes, homepage, languages, and zoom. To set up Chrome's bookmark sync, go to the wrench menu and pick the new menu choice, "Set up sync…" This opens a dialog where you enter your Google Account name and password, usually a Gmail login. After this, you'll (hopefully) see a Success dialog with a green check mark. To set up access to the same bookmarks and settings on another machine, you just repeat the process on that one.

On the subsequent PCs, you'll see a dialog asking if you want to merge and sync the bookmarks; this is preferable to overwriting them on one of the machines, which I'd feared might be the case. And luckily, you don't get two bookmarks if you had the same one on both machines, as sometimes happens when installing a new browser that imports bookmarks from your old one.

Extensions in Chrome

Extensions are accessible from the Chrome customization menu, which appears as a wrench at the top right side of its program window. In typical Chrome fashion, rather than opening a window for that purpose (as in Firefox), what opens looks like a Web page listing installed extensions. To fill it up, you can head to the Extension gallery, which is linked from this Extensions page.

New in version 5 is a checkbox for each extension that allows it to run while you're in incognito (private-browsing) mode. Enough users must have complained that extensions disappear when you enter that mode; it makes sense that you might still want to run your Ad Blocker while in the private mode. You can choose which extensions you want to make available in incognito. In comparison, Firefox's extensions already work in its private browsing mode, as do IE8's Accelerators and WebSlices.

After you install an extension, a tooltip pops up showing its new icon either in the address bar or as an added menu button next to the default page and wrench menus. Some extensions, such as the RSS reader, and a PDF reader, don't install icons, while others add choices to the browser's options dialog. A "Chromed Bird" Twitter app required a separate authorization on the service, as I'm sure will be the case with most social network extensions. In all, though Chrome can claim nowhere near the wealth of extensions Firefox can, it's a darn good start.

Security

Chrome 5 doesn't bring much new to the areas of security and privacy. It maintains all the security features available in previous versions, which aren't exactly market-leading, but they're something.

SafeBrowsing supplies the same anti-malware and -phishing protections you'll find in Firefox 3; you'll even see a similar red warning page if you try to surf onto a bad site. Chrome's developers claim that SafeBrowsing is now faster, more reliable, and uses the disk less often.

The browser supports SSL and can show Extended Validation SSL information, but it doesn't support SSL client authentication, which lets developers authenticate users accessing the server by exchanging a client certificate. Nor does Chrome offer IE8's protections against cross-site scripting and clickjacking. This browser is hardly as big a target for hackers as IE, but that's still no reason not to implement rigorous security.

To help protect from crashes due to both malicious and poorly coded sites, Chrome runs each tab in a separate process. If a site on one tab freaks out, it won't take down the whole browser. Chrome shares this approach with IE8, but Google's browser takes the implementation a couple of welcome steps further, isolating plug-ins (such as Flash) as well as tabs and offering a Task Manager for your open tabs and add-ins. The Mozilla Lorentz Project aims to do the same for Firefox.

In addition to isolating simultaneous tab processes, Chrome does so sequentially: As you move to a different domain within a single tab, the browser throws out the earlier tab process and starts a new one, just in case the previous site caused memory leaks. I worried about the effect this would have on the Back button and whether the application would remember the session information from the earlier site, but I didn't run into any problems during testing. I was able to check my webmail using the Back button even after moving to another site, for example.

Privacy

These days privacy is as big a concern as security. Chrome's Incognito mode (much like IE8's InPrivate feature) lets you move around the Web without leaving traces of your activity. With version 5, as I've mentioned, you can use your extensions while in the mode. Chrome's feature has an advantage over IE8's in that you can have one tab in Incognito mode while viewing others in public mode. But the browser has no parental controls, so you're on your own in policing your child's Web use. And IE8 has its own big advantage: InPrivate actually prevents sites from seeing each other's activity—something no other browser's private mode offers.

As with any product from Google, there's another concern: Will Chrome be just another way for the company to gather even more detailed information on your activities and habits? The designers have said that the JavaScript renderer works in a virtual machine with no access to the rest of your system, but that's not necessarily true of the app as a whole. Also, the tech press has noted that each copy of Chrome has an identifying number that's tied to any data Google collects. It's worrisome, and a move similar to one Microsoft took a lot of heat for a few years ago when it launched Windows XP.

Support for New Standards

Chrome is taking a lead in support for HTML 5 features like the <audio> and <video> tags, which let sites present those media types without the need for commercial plug-ins such as Adobe Flash or Microsoft's Silverlight. On the other hand, Google is hedging its bets by baking Flash into the next version. And its hedging its bets in another way. Like Internet Explorer 9 and Safari, Chrome will support HTML 5 video that uses the H.264 codec, but unlike those, Chrome implements the Ogg format championed by Firefox and Opera, too.

But new HTML support in Chrome 5 goes beyond playing media. Chrome now includes support for the spec's Geolocation APIs as demonstrated by Google Maps' "Show My Location" button, which Firefox also offers. Also new are support for Web sockets (which allow live communication between sites and the browser), and drag-and-drop (which you can see in action at Gmail.com). The browser's slightly revamped and more interactive bookmark manager also takes advantage of new HTML 5 support.

Chrome also supports HTML 5 "web workers," which allows the browser to speed up operation on multicore PCs by divvying processing work among sub-threads. You can see examples of Web content that takes advantage of the new standard support at chromeexperiments.com.

Summary

Google's browser is still pared down compared with the feature-rich IE, Safari, and Opera browser. And it can't compete with ultimate makeover artist and Editors' Choice Firefox's thousands of extensions. In HTML 5 support all but IE are pretty much on par, but this could change with IE9 and the video codec wars. Chrome's blazing speed, extension capability, excellent tab functionality, Incognito browsing mode, and syncing make it a compelling choice for everyday use. If speed is your primary concern Chrome is the browser for you.

Download Chrome Now   google.com/chrome

Review provided by PCmag.com

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